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Autism Spectrum Series – Theory of Mind

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Welcome to this week’s In Therapy post.

In this week’s Autism Spectrum series, I want to discuss theory of mind, as it is an important aspect of social communication, and a big part of the difficulties that someone on the Spectrum might experience.


1I find it amazing how people on the Spectrum, particularly Aspergers, find ways to figure out how to navigate the sea of social communication that we take for granted as neurotypicals.

It is amazing but also, to them, to be expected as it is a skill and a tool for survival and for living in a mainly mainstream world.


In brief, theory of mind explains how people understand someone else’s point of view, including what they know, what they believe, their emotions and intentions. This understanding in turn helps to navigate the sea of social communication and situations we discussed last week.

It is similar to empathy, only differing in that empathy allows the person to feel what the other is feeling, whereas theory of mind stops at the understanding that someone might have different feelings to themselves.

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Sometimes people might struggle with social interactions because they might believe that everyone believes and thinks exactly the same way as they do.


In neurotypical children, theory of mind – knowing that others might have different beliefs, knowledge or emotions about things – starts to develop at the age of 3-5 years, while in those on the Autism Spectrum it might begin to develop between the ages of 5-13, but it might not develop to the same level of the neurotypical children.

This is a good predictor or aspect important in diagnosing Autism or Aspergers.


The opposite of theory of mind is mind-blindness.


3Knowing that theory of mind is an area to be worked on, and following from what I said last week about challenging the individual’s learned view of a particular situation (remember the folding of the arms scenario), providing skills to develop social skills in understanding others’ reactions and beliefs is an important aspect of the therapy or coaching process.

For example, in the folding of the arms scenario, the individual with Autism trying to figure out what the folded arms mean, might react aggressively because they might believe the person is angry with them and they are trying to defend themselves from this anger.

If we analyse this scenario with the individual, and explore other reason for the other person having their arms folded, we might see their behaviours change – if the person is just feeling cold, the individual might offer them a jumper or try to get them a hot drink to warm up.

4In therapy, I use this technique with my mainstream clients, in a similar way but possibly in a more cognitive way, in more abstract terms; whereas with someone with Autism it might need to be discussed in a more objective, tangible, behavioural way.

That is not to say that I wouldn’t or haven’t used both ways of working with my clients on the Spectrum.

It’s just about finding the right words and ways to make things easy to grasp, to get that “aha” moment that effects change in therapy.

Same idea, different process.


Theory of mind is one aspect of social communication and interaction, but it goes even further than just preventing someone from understanding another person’s beliefs, emotions and intentions.

As a consequence of the difficulty in figuring these out, the following areas of social interactions are also affected: having meaningful conversations, resolving problems, having intimate relationships, to name a few.

5This can be highly frustrating, leading to “meltdowns” or broken relationships if not picked up soon enough.


Having said that, most humans have broken relationships – so it is important to normalise that these broken relationships aren’t privy to people on the Spectrum. We all fail at communicating well what we think or feel, especially to those closest to us.

Becoming aware of this and learning from our mistakes is going to make the difference in our next relationships.


Understanding how this area of functioning is affected, will provide great insight into the mind of someone on the Spectrum, and therefore allow us to better understand their behaviours and communications, whether verbal or otherwise…

6…they will also allow us to find better ways to teach social interaction skills and ways to guess what the other person is thinking and feeling, and therefore increasing the chance of close relationships, meaningful conversations and increased ability for problem solving.


I trust in the process and I trust in my clients’ capacity to develop all these things, and more!


I have been working with clients on the Spectrum from a cognitive standpoint, in the here-and-now, but also understanding – psycho-dynamically – that some issues that they might be experiencing might stem from childhood experiences or other experiences from the past.

I work in this way with everyone, but pay special attention to the social communication aspects when working with people on the Spectrum.

In my place of work with young people with Autism and other disabilities, we us social stories to help them understand what is happening now, what is going to happen next, where we are going, when we are eating or having a snack, and when we are getting back to the care home after an outing.

7This works very well as it gives them information and therefore lowers anxiety during transitions.


There is a lot of scope to help mainstream individuals understand how people on the Spectrum function and how they have learned to navigate the complex world of social interactions, which in turn will help us show the person on the Spectrum how others think, creating a better environment for everyone.


Understanding is key…


 

 

I welcome your questions and comments below.

Next week I will write more about Intense World Theory.


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